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Mawrtyr2008's picture

"Othering" Culture

Examples of how easily culture can be changed are so far missing from this conversation. Just to rattle off a short list of ways that we’ve all likely experienced or heard about: talk therapy used in conjunction with drug therapy, any education system that offers students specialized care but also integrates them with other types of learners (maybe like Montessori education?), the reciprocal education program at BMC/HC where staff and students have sessions and swap skills (a commonly used example is teaching a staff member how to use a computer in exchange for car repair tips), and any of the diversity discussions on campus that get people from many different backgrounds and cultures in the same room talking about issues that affect everyone. Not only is collaborative cultural change possible, it’s happening on our campus daily.

I think one of the most interesting points that has been made in this forum is that precisely because brains are capable of change, so too are cultures. What’s interesting about this situation is that culture isn’t an iron curtain of norms and values because brains are capable of empathy. For this reason, a person can go to another, for example, country, and still find value in other people’s way of doing things without feeling that their own self-worth is threatened. Also for this reason, Natsu’s account resonated with me and I understood why she made the choice she did. However, a key problematic component of the ability to hold two contrasting ways of operating in one’s mind has to do with “othering” one of them. The natural extension of the question becomes why can people easily regard different religious traditions, education systems, labor division systems as valuable but have such a hard time accepting mental illness in a comparable way. In other words, what makes mental illness so prone to value assignment and necessitates “fixing” in many people’s minds?

In discussing disability, I feel it’s important to bring up a caution about invoking evolutionary processes like adaptation and fitness as a catchall explanation for difference. One of the most pervasive myths about evolutionary processes, one that was expressed repeatedly during this discussion, is that natural selection continually improves and enhances populations towards a progressive, idealized morphological goal. Hands down, the most interesting thing I learned in taking Evolution last semester was that random mutations are responsible for much of the variation we see today. From our discussion and a basic background in genetics, it’s clear that all disabilities are rooted in allelic variation, accounted for by mutation. To build on this, it’s also interesting when discussing evolution as an explanation for disability that the process takes enormous amounts of time. Furthermore, consciousness as we understand it completely convolutes this process in ways that are difficult to understand but easy to see the effects of (like climate change). To take this further, our way of doing things, our culture, our norms and values, are transitory. It’s not that they might change, it’s that they certainly will change. The question is, how? What I mean by this is, if we’re aware that things will change and we’re aware that we can make things change, how will we create change in a way that is important to us?

Finally, I’d like to toss out a definition of disability as an alternative to Tamara’s suicide, self-negating one. I’m pretty convinced at this point that you can’t talk about life without talking about variation, and that you can’t talk about variation without talking about relative ability. Relative ability then, is a quality of life as we know it, and disability is some construct made to carve up groups of people. I refer to disability as understood as by the traditional medical model criteria, including the lack of communication, lack of capacity to change, lack of ability to realize one’s own “otherness”. Maybe then, the only people that you can really characterize as disabled, are people that we’re not even sure are living. I would imagine people in persistent vegetative states, people in deep comas with little hope for recovery, people in the very final stages of neurodegenerative disorders, etc. fill this role. I hope that argument made sense. If it didn't, please let me know.


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